Hope Ilias is a state champion, and if the Friendship Christian fourth-grader isn’t careful, she’ll collect a whole lot more trophies before she crosses her final finish line.
She isn’t content to outrun kids her own age, she’s finishing ahead of boys and girls, men and women of all ages.
She won the elementary state cross country championship last Saturday in Knoxville, setting the Victor Ashe Park course record of 5:51 in the one-mile run, obliterating the previous mark by 17 seconds.
That race was against fellow elementary school students. But she’s been leaving middle school runners in her wake all season long.
“She competed in middle school all year and won every race against seventh- and eighth-graders,” said her FCS coach, Greg Armstrong. “TSSAA rules don’t let her run in middle school races.
“Since FCS is not TSSAA in middle school [TMSAA], in high school we are, we have the right to run her in local races. But in the regional and state meet we weren’t allowed to run her.”
She ran independently in Sherry’s Run last month, winning the overall female division [ages 1-98] in 20:05, a state record for 9-year-olds in the 5K [one mile]. She was 25th overall.
Running runs in Ilias’ family. Her mother, Tracy Burtnett, a Spanish teacher at FCS, won the 40-44 female division of Sherry’s Run in 22:46, good for 89th place overall. Stepbrother Josh Burtnett, a Friendship fifth-grader, finished 23rd at the state meet in 6:24.
“Her sister [eighth-grader Carlee] has run for us for years, so [Hope] came out some last year and ran with us,” Armstrong said. “This is her first year to be on the team competing.
“[Carlee’s] a great runner herself. She’ll be running in the high school regional championship on Thursday.”
Hope takes her sport seriously, even at such a tender age.
“A lot of it is God-given talent, but a lot of it is she pushes herself against high school students,” Armstrong said, noting she runs sub-six-minute miles in practice. “She works just as hard as anybody.
“It’s pretty phenomenal at that age running at that level. She has a real competitive spirit. She gets our there and runs real hard to improve herself. She can push herself in practice as well as she does in competition, which says a lot about her desire to get better.”
Adults tend to try to project how an athletic prodigy will turn out in high school. Armstrong is trying to rein in any long-term expectations.
“We want to be conscientious of her development and make sure she’s enjoying herself every minute,” Armstrong said. “But it’s hard not to think about what she’s going to become in the future.”